This month, a couple of inventive young go-getters at Buzzfeed tied enough rubber bands around the centre of a watermelon to make it explode. Nearly 1 million people watched the giant berry burst on Facebook Live. It racked up more than 10 million views in the days that followed. Traditional journalists everywhere saw themselves as the seeds, flying out of the frame. How do we compete with that? And if that's the future of news and information, what's next for our democracy? President Kardashian?
Grandkids: It was not so long ago - oh, say, five, maybe six years - that traditional news organizations like this one could laugh at Buzzfeed’s gag along with everyone else, smugly secure. An exploding watermelon was just an exploding watermelon.
These days, however, news articles - be they about war, voting rights, the arts or immigration policy - increasingly inhabit social media feeds like the frighteningly dominant one that Facebook runs. They are competing for attention against zany kitchen experiments; your friend’s daughter’s bar mitzvah; and that wild video of a train whipping through a ridiculously narrow alleyway in India.
After watching the fruiticide, I noticed a Twitter post by the freelance journalist Erik Malinowski that read, “the watermelon ... is us,” and sighed. Seemed about right.
The sense of dread was compounded a few hours later, when the website Mashable, which first came to prominence covering Internet businesses and culture, appeared to pare back an ambitious effort to prove that serious world and political news could thrive alongside “Grumpy Cat.”
Mashable announced that as part of a reorganisation it was shedding several highly regarded journalists, including its executive editor, Jim Roberts, a former assistant managing editor at the New York Times. Look out, White House, I thought, here comes Kimye.
Then, sweet relief (or was it?): the Financial Times reported that Buzzfeed - which is best known for hits like the watermelon video, though its news team wins awards - missed its financial targets last year and was revising this year's projections downward. Buzzfeed, which does not disclose its finances, denied the report, saying this year will meet expectations. But traditional newsrooms everywhere were revelling in the schadenfreude just the same. Aha! Perhaps random snapshots of callipygian Corgis do not a business model make; news as we know it is safe.
Well, not really. We may not yet be the watermelon. But executives who run news organizations almost universally say that we’d all better find our own watermelons – and find them yesterday.
It means big changes are coming fast in the way major news institutions present their journalism, what that journalism includes, and how decisions are made about what to include. The goal: to draw big, addicted audiences.
A lot of it is being done in the rushed panic that comes with the demands of quarterly earnings. And yet, given the highest calling of the news industry – hold politicians to account, unearth corruption – the importance to our political and civic life could not be greater.
A good way to understand the fast-evolving thinking is to check in on people who are trying to build a news and information business from scratch. I did that last week over breakfast with Jim VandeHei, a co-founder of Politico, and Mike Allen, one of the site's best-known journalists. Both are also veterans of the Washington Post.
VandeHei, who stepped down last week as Politico’s chief executive, and Roy Schwartz, the company’s departing chief revenue officer, have been seeking potential investors and video and television partners. Allen is for the time being continuing to write his vital morning tip sheet at Politico, “Playbook,” seven days a week.
When I met with VandeHei and Allen, they were tight-lipped about their next venture. They would only describe it in the broadest terms, as “a media company” that will focus on news and information, exist largely on mobile devices and social media, and not directly compete against Politico.
But that was OK for my purposes. I was more interested in hearing what this venture wouldn’t be doing. Their answers may require a trigger warning for the proudly ink-stained set.
It starts with VandeHei’s admittedly provocative proposition that “journalists are killing journalism.” They’re doing this, he says, by “stubbornly clinging to the old ways.” That’s defined as producing 50 competing but nearly identical stories about a presidential candidate’s latest speech, or 700-word updates on the transportation budget negotiations.
Survival, VandeHei says, depends on giving readers what they really want, how they want it, when they want it, and on not spending too much money producing what they don’t want. It’s not only about creating big audiences for advertisers, he and Allen said. It’s about convincing already-inundated audiences that they want what you’re producing, and they want it so badly that they will pay for it through subscriptions. That’s essential as advertising revenue drops to levels that will not support robust news gathering.
Hooking people on your news product is a lot harder than, say, hooking them on heroin or even coffee. But news organisations have ways they never had before to figure it out.
Through real-time analytics, reporters and editors know how many people are reading their work and through which devices and sites, how long those readers are sticking with it, and what they’re ignoring.
Screens featuring these analytics are increasingly showing up, prominently, in American newsrooms, including those of the New York Times and the Washington Post. This is the biggest and least talked about development in traditional print media as it converts to digital: It now has ratings, just as television does. The findings from these ratings have been fairly consistent.
Videos, podcasts, short items of interest that can be read easily on smartphones, and almost anything with the words "Donald Trump" rate well. Perhaps counterintuitively, deeply reported features and investigative pieces like the Times' coverage of Isis' brutality or its nearly 8,000-word article about one man's lonely death in Queens can draw readership levels that were never possible in the print-only era.
That's a big deal, and in VandeHei's and Allen's view – as well as those of the bosses at the Times, the Post and elsewhere – it shows that big, important work will prove more valuable than fun stunts that may or may not draw big online audiences.
What do not necessarily rate well, however, are the (often important if sometimes unsexy) articles about yesterday's doings – or, nondoings – at the Federal Election Commission, or the latest federal budget fight. "We didn't know if, in a newspaper, people were reading our 600-word piece on the transportation markup on A10 – now we do," VandeHei said. "I'm not saying you let the audience dictate everything, but a smart, aggressive, forward-leaning media company is going to write what it thinks is important and its audience thinks is important."
This is talk you hear in newsrooms across the country, and it's where there is some cause for concern. Those drier articles may not score in the ratings, but they can lead to the bigger ones. Watergate started as a story about a burglary. The wide-ranging sex abuse scandal in the catholic church that the Boston Globe exposed – captured in the movie Spotlight – began as a 700-word column about a single priest.
Once ratings come into the picture, will reporters still want to pursue those smaller stories? And will their editors, who once called these stories “spinach,” want to publish them?
The answer from VandeHei and like-minded news executives is yes, but it’s incumbent upon news organisations to do a better job with them – make them shorter and more distinctive, with data and striking visual presentation.
Understood. All I’m asking is that we be careful not to lose too many core values on our way to the future. Otherwise, it’s watermelon flambé at the Kardashian inauguration, and yes, we’re the watermelon.
– New York Times